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Blue Jackets hope to add depth in draft

| Saturday, June 24, 2006

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The Columbus Blue Jackets have reached a point where they are not looking for a savior in Saturday night's draft.

A solid contributor a couple of years down the road• That would be quite enough, thank you.

"The way we finished out last season, we were very excited," coach Gerard Gallant said on Friday. "It worked out because we had some depth and we stayed healthy. This year we're probably going to get a top forward. To add another player or two to the mix will be very, very good for our club."

Almost every mock draft predicts big defenseman Erik Johnson will be the first name called by the St. Louis Blues. The next eight to 10 picks will most likely be forwards - and no one really has an idea if the guy picked No. 2 will be any better than the one picked at No. 11.

"It's all over the map," Blue Jackets president and general manager Doug MacLean said.

A year after Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby overshadowed everyone else as the No. 1, and two drafts removed from flashy Alexander Ovechkin going No. 1 to Washington, there is no can't-miss kid. Johnson is seen as the best bet, a 6-foot-4, 222-pounder who can skate and has the added attribute of being a rare right-handed shooter on the blue line.

After Johnson, the top prospects are centers Jonathan Toews, Jordan Staal (brother of Stanley Cup-winning Carolina Hurricanes' forward Eric Staal), Swedish phenom Nicklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel, Derick Brassard and Peter Mueller.

"The bottom line is there's probably eight or nine forwards that are real good and have a chance of stepping in (to the NHL) real early and playing," Columbus director of player personnel Don Boyd said. "If you take 30 teams and take five scouts off each, those scouts will look at the top 10 or even the top five and see a lot of different ways to list them. These kids don't separate themselves very much."

Toews and Staal likely will be gone by the time MacLean steps to the podium in GM Place. Those still on the board will leave MacLean with an intriguing choice.

Backstrom is a point-producer considered by some in his homeland to be the heir apparent to Peter Forsberg.

A Wisconsin native whose father played in the Canadian Football League, Kessel may be the poster boy for the speed-dominated new NHL. He's also got the tools to handle a shift to winger, if need be.

Brassard is a premier skater who piled up 116 points in the tough Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season, despite breaking an arm in November. His dad was a sixth-round pick by the Montreal Canadiens in 1976.

The big (6-foot-2, 200), mobile Mueller has soft hands and great instincts with the puck.

No matter who Columbus takes - and MacLean says he doesn't intend to make any deals to fall lower than No. 6 in the opening round - the team isn't looking for immediate help. The Blue Jackets believe they're poised to make a run at the playoffs after following a 9-25-1 start with a 26-18-3 finish.

The Blue Jackets are salivating over a center taken a year ago with the No. 6 pick, Gilbert Brule.

Brule appears to be the puck-mover with an edge that Columbus badly needs. He stuck with the team out of camp and played only two games before breaking his sternum. He returned to play five more games before breaking his leg.

He recuperated with Vancouver of the Western Hockey League and totaled an eye-popping 30 points (with 16 goals) in 18 playoff games to lead the Giants to the league title.

"He's probably going to be a top player on our team," Gallant said. "So you've already added a great hockey player. Whoever we get (in the draft) will just add to the quality kids we've got."

Russian superstar Sergei Fedorov, acquired in a November deal with Anaheim, figures to man one of the top two lines with Brule possibly centering the other.

When open season on free agents begins on July 1, MacLean will be gunning for a veteran offensive threat who's a two-way player. Players who fit that rough description include Scott Young (St. Louis), Jamie Langenbrunner (New Jersey), Sergei Samsonov (Edmonton) and Maxim Afinogenov (Buffalo).

"Because we want to put Brule in our lineup in the top six, you need a veteran guy to allow you to do that," MacLean said.

So the Blue Jackets will be looking for solid players who can lend a hand further down the road.

"Whatever we do, we have to continue to upgrade our speed and our quickness to catch the teams ahead of us," Boyd said. "We've got some real good building blocks and some real good leaders now. Now we have to keep adding to that."

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